The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday will return to Minneapolis for the first time in seven years with a perfectly fine card.
Francis Ngannou gets a fascinating test against Junior dos Santos in the UFC on ESPN 3 headliner, and beyond that, the promotion has populated the lineup with a No. 1 contender’s match pitting Jussier Formiga against Joseph Benavidez and a veteran-versus-prospect clash pairing Demian Maia with Anthony Rocco Martin, along with the usual mix of rising prospects and action fighters. The train keeps rolling, and while this event should provide five to six hours of fun, it is difficult not to look ahead to UFC 239.
Now the UFC on ESPN 3 “Ngannou vs. dos Santos” preview:
HeavyweightsFrancis Ngannou (13-3) vs. Junior dos Santos (21-5)
ODDS: Ngannou (-250), dos Santos (+210)
Despite the UFC’s best efforts to ruin him, Ngannou remains the most terrifying force in the heavyweight division. This general point has become a bit of a cliché when discussing Ngannou, but had he grown up in Florida rather than Cameroon, he would be an NFL defensive lineman instead of a mixed martial artist. Thankfully for this sport, Ngannou slipped through the geographic cracks. After moving to France with the hope of becoming a boxer, Ngannou accidentally walked into a MMA gym and the rest is history. Within two years, “The Predator” was under UFC employ, and once Ngannou hit the Octagon, it was not just his pure physical ability that got everyone talking but his improvement from fight to fight. In his UFC debut against Luis Henrique Barbosa de Oliveira, Ngannou was taken down multiple times before he came back with a brutal knockout. Less than four months later, he was stuffing takedowns at will against Curtis Blaydes. Ngannou kept racking up vicious finish after vicious finish, and after a memorably violent obliteration of Alistair Overeem, he headed into 2018 as the UFC’s top heavyweight contender and the potential Next Big Thing in the sport. A title fight resulted in a one-sided loss to Stipe Miocic that was a mixed bag. Ngannou’s wrestling defense looked poor and he tired badly in the later rounds, but it still looked like more a case of his inexperience getting him in trouble rather than anything innate that could not be fixed. It was not until Ngannou’s next fight -- a memorably horrific encounter against Derrick Lewis at UFC 226 -- that alarm bells started to sound. Whether it was gassing so badly in his last bout, suffering such a clear loss or something else entirely, Ngannou looked completely hesitant to throw much of anything. Lewis, a preferred counterstriker, did not do much, either, but after 15 minutes of what was mostly a staring contest, Ngannou suddenly had two straight losses and a ton of questions about his future. The loss also seemed to put Ngannou firmly in the organization’s doghouse, as UFC President Dana White insulted him in the media. Ngannou was given a rematch with Blaydes, a fight that did not seem to be much outside of an opportunity for the latter to avenge his biggest loss. Instead, Ngannou ran over Blaydes in just 45 seconds, and after doing the same to Cain Velasquez in even quicker fashion, he was back to contender status. It is difficult to say that Ngannou has evolved much or patched up any of the holes that were present in the Miocic fight, but it is also difficult to pick out opponents who can actually take advantage of the weaknesses in Ngannou’s game. Dos Santos will be the next man to try, and he is enjoying a surprising resurgence of his own.
After his title trilogy with Velasquez ended with dos Santos receiving two extended beatings, the conventional wisdom was that the Brazilian had absorbed so much damage that his career would never quite be the same. The next few years were fairly rough. Injuries limited dos Santos to only one fight per calendar year from 2014 through 2017, and “Cigano” continued to accumulate damage against opponents like Miocic and Overeem. However, since he dropped a 2017 title fight to Miocic, dos Santos has had a bit of a renaissance, or at the very least proven that the majority of heavyweights have not caught up to him just yet. Armed with little else but a jab and solid boxing fundamentals, dos Santos has managed to keep Lewis, Blagoy Ivanov and Tai Tuivasa at bay to remain a going concern. While there is not as much snap on those punches as there used to be and while dos Santos still gets himself in trouble from time to time, he has still been able to score the knockout first when overaggressive opponents try to exchange. With the heavyweight division in an odd place and potentially wide open depending on the result of the forthcoming title fight between Miocic and Daniel Cormier, a win here could surprisingly put dos Santos right back in the picture.
At first blush, this seems like an easy call for Ngannou. The wheels have not fallen off completely for dos Santos, but he is the older, slower fighter, and Ngannou has managed to quickly finish opponents who are past their primes. However, there is also the distinct possibility that dos Santos can just coast and do the same thing he did to Ivanov, Tuivasa and Lewis. Ngannou is at his best when he can get a feel for his opponent. He managed to cause a ton of damage countering takedown attempts from Blaydes and Velasquez, and even the Overeem knockout was a case of the Dutchman trying to force things into the clinch first. In contrast, dos Santos should hopefully be content staying at a distance and trying to stay out of trouble whenever Ngannou decides to counter. At the end of the day, it will probably still only take one solid counter for Ngannou to end this fight. If dos Santos was more committed to countering or a lower volume game like the one Lewis employs, the former champion could win an interminable staring contest, but he will probably be content to keep throwing out volume, which will only give Ngannou more opportunities to clock him in return. Even against Tuivasa and Lewis, dos Santos had his moments of getting out of position and into trouble, and again, all it will take is one instance of Ngannou closing distance at the right time to put an end to this. The pick is Ngannou via second-round knockout.
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